Black and White Thinking

When I first read that autistic people tend toward rigid, black-and-white thinking, I thought a lot of it didn’t apply to me. When it comes to ideas and concepts, I feel I am very open-minded and flexible. Sometimes I think I see multiple sides too easily, and have a hard time staying firm in my convictions. I even find it easy to hold beliefs that others may find conflicting, such as the value I place on reason and scientific knowledge and the value I also place on emotion and spiritual or even mystical experience.

But what I am coming to realize is that my either-or, all-or-nothing thinking often comes into play around people. I am usually very easy-going when I meet people, looking primarily at the things we have in common — and usually there is something, since I typically meet people who are friends of friends, or who are at an event with me that indicates a shared interest between us. I assume that if we have some things in common, we likely have many others. But then if I find one of those people expressing views that I strongly disagree with, even in an unrelated area, it throws into question all of the value I have gotten from their other statements.

Similarly, there have been people in my life with whom I was once close, but whose behavior led to a break in our relationship. I find it very difficult to value the memories of those friendships, and in cases where the person was also in a teaching or mentorship role, I find it extremely difficult to value the things I learned from them. It can take me a long time to circle back around to an appreciation of the ideas or skills they brought into my life, and to not associate those things only with the difficulties that came later.

I don’t particularly want to be this way. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I am that person who expresses the “wrong” belief and suddenly everyone turns on me; I don’t want to do that to others. At the same time, though, because I can be so open-minded about ideas, I try to be careful about the people I allow to influence me. And the fact is, I have never in my life agreed with anyone 100%. At this point I know that’s not going to happen, so I go in with the (at least theoretical) mindset of “take what works for you, and leave the rest.” So I think I do tolerate a great deal of disagreement with other people — it just has a limit. It’s kind of like my ability to tolerate uncomfortable situations: I can do it for a certain amount of time, but then I’m going to speak up and/or make some changes. So there is a threshold beyond which I will be tempted to disengage entirely with everything about a person, and often that’s not really fair.

Mind you, sometimes it is fair; I’m all for dropping any engagement with someone or someone’s work after discovering that they espouse some horrific ideology. I’m talking more about reaching a point where I disagree — strongly but not necessarily vehemently — with someone’s perspective on one thing, and so lose respect for things they’ve said or done in other areas. It becomes all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking that erases all the nuanced opinions that I usually carry through life.

(I also struggle to find middle ground between doing something “perfectly” and feeling like an utter failure — but that is a topic for another post!)

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